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Dude, you're getting a career

As actor Ben Curtis' fame rises with each commercial, so do Dell's computer sales. The 21-year-old's charm has captured market share and Hollywood's attention.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 28, 2002

If you watch TV, chances are good you've seen Steven. You know -- the blond-haired teen who has a touch of Sean Penn's surfer guy vibe and could be the nice younger brother that Eddie Haskell never had.

The "Dude, you're getting a Dell" kid.

He works all the angles to coax/persuade/manipulate his parents -- and those of his high school pals -- to shell out their dough for a Dell computer.

Nine "Steven" commercials have been filmed since December 2000 and are reaping results. Dell's home consumer market share has soared despite a struggling economy that has many other competitors suffering. And the actor who stars in the company's campaign is riding a dream break to hot commodity status -- on Madison Avenue, on the Web and perhaps now in Hollywood.

For the record, he's not really a teenager, but 21-year-old Ben Curtis of Chattanooga, Tenn. Nor is he a charming slacker with a knack for sales. He just plays one on TV. The fact is, barely more than a year ago, Curtis was an almost-broke, serious drama student at New York University's Tisch School for the Performing Arts. The once shy kid, who became a professional magician at 13, has learned that he can work a new kind of magic.

Today, Curtis is Dell-uged with national attention, the latest pitch person to make a dent in the pop culture lexicon in the tradition of "Whassup?!!" and "Where's the beef?"

In Curtis' case, he's also evoking reactions usually reserved for pop stars. He can't walk down the street without people of all ages pointing, asking for autographs or yelling things like, "Dude, you're getting a Dell!" or "Where's my computer?"

Young girls scream when they see him, mail him adoring letters and post love notes and Ben Curtis trivia on Internet bulletin boards and fan pages. The Wall Street Journal noted this month that Curtis has one of the biggest fan site followings on the Net tied to an advertising campaign.

"I tried logging on to one site, but you have to be a member, and I wasn't," he says with a laugh, talking recently by cell phone from Los Angeles. "All the attention is great, though. I'm flattered."

Curtis has taken a semester off from NYU to pursue the many acting opportunities that have come his way. For the past few weeks, he has been in Los Angeles filming the next Dell commercial and auditioning for an array of roles. He just read for the youth lead in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator III, for a film by director Stanley Donan (Singin' in the Rain, Damn Yankees), for a horror flick and for a lengthy list of TV pilots and soaps.

"A lot of amazing doors have opened for me," he says. "I never imagined all this could happen from that first commercial."

* * *

When Curtis was 20 and a sophomore, his manager, Renate English of Friendly Faces in Monmouth, N.J., alerted him to an audition for a national commercial. They were interested in boys ages 12 to 17. So Curtis donned a sweat shirt and sat in a room of 100 or so youngsters.

"I looked around, and most of the kids looked like five years younger than me," he says. "I really had no clue about what to expect."

Finally, he was handed a script and told to memorize it and play the part any way he felt it would work. "So that's what I did -- I just tried to bring out young, kid energy and something appealing. The script was really well-written, and there's a little manipulation of the parents going on, which is something I was pretty good at as a kid."

He'd never watched much Leave It to Beaver, so the Haskell factor didn't come into play. If anything, Curtis drew on a surfer dude attitude, playing the character not as a laid-back goofball but with some cunning exuberance for his PC cause. He also tapped his experience with physical comedy, producing some amusing gestures and facial expressions.

"I wanted to make him approachable," Curtis says. "Maybe that's why he appeals to people."

The actor was called back three times before winning the role over four younger hopefuls, who had their moms in tow. Claire Bennett, a senior ad account executive at Dell, was in on the selection process. When she saw Curtis' casting tape, she first thought maybe he was too old for the part. But in moments, she knew: "Ben was so it. He's a great actor who just turns into Steven."

After 60 takes or so, the first commercial was a wrap. It featured Steven talking directly to the camera while he videotaped his pitch to his father -- stressing all the free accessories and appealing to his dad's love of bargains.

That debut spot remains one of Curtis' favorites, as well as the third, where Steven videotapes another appeal for a Dell, this time standing beside oafish friend Jeff and directing a pitch to the kid's parents next door, Mr. and Mrs. Feffercorn, whose rhododendrons he has apparently damaged. "I think I like that one best," he says.

The campaign's signature line didn't appear until the fourth commercial, which ran heavily over the summer and fall. It featured Steven in a department store trying to convince an initially skeptical mom, Mrs. Lindsay, that she should buy a Dell for her quiet but eager son William.

"Thank you, Steven," she finally replies, won over despite the heavy sales tactics.

"Dude, you're getting a Dell," Steven says to William as they discreetly touch each other's fists in victory.

The script's original grand finale line was "Mission accomplished." But Curtis had been given some leeway with the scripts and suggested they try something different. The writers huddled and came up with the now familiar trademark on the spot.

Over the holidays, Steven appeared as one of Santa's elves, and doing some physical improv seated on a couch. In each spot, he tried to make his character age, from 15 to about 18 now.

"The next one," he says, "is going to be one of my favorites -- all I can say is, Steven is really moving up in the world."

* * *

The same may be said for Dell.

The company, based in Austin, Texas, enjoys a wide lead in U.S. business sales but hadn't aggressively targeted home consumers with its mostly mail-order systems. Armed with its Steven commercials and touting bargain prices, Dell's consumer sales rose 50 percent in the final quarter of 2001.

The initial campaign, Dell exec Bennett explains, was intended to help consumers "get over the intimidation of technology. But how do you say that so people can feel comfortable with it and enjoy watching these spots?"

The answer was with Steven -- and Curtis. Bennett says she had a hunch the commercials could be big from the start. "It's a combination of the messenger and the message," she says.

Growing up, Curtis never gave much thought to computers. He spent most of his time outdoors, becoming an Eagle Scout and going to the state tournament as starting goalkeeper at Chattanooga's McCallie High School. But he also had a gift for communicating.

His father is an Episcopal pastor, and Curtis got past his natural shyness by performing. His specialty was magic. Honing an interest that began at age 4, Curtis attended several magic summer camps in New York and started earning money with his own show at 13. He even got a New York agent and did some shows around the country.

By his senior year of high school, he traded pro soccer aspirations for acting and set his sights on NYU. Acting, he thought, might help his magic stage presence, or it might open some new doors to dramatic theater.

Curtis pursued his interest in serious acting with a key role in an NYU production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child. And though comedy has become his meal ticket with Dell, Curtis plans to further his dramatic skills. He has been accepted to an Amsterdam acting program heavy on Shakespeare and plans to apply to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "I'd really love to do some independent films, too, because I feel like the artistic element is so strong," he says.

Curtis' serious side shows up in other ways. During his last two years in high school, he was on a racial diversity committee that worked with leaders of Chattanooga's African-American community. He says he plans to return to Tennessee and start a program for at-risk black teens.

"My family has always worked with a lot of different ethnicities and minorities, and it's something very important to me," he says. "I really want to go back, especially if people are looking up to me (because of the commercials)."

Then there was Sept. 11, when Curtis found himself in the midst of the crisis and a medical drama. He was asleep in his Lower Manhattan apartment three blocks from the World Trade Center when the first tower was hit. His roommate, a photographer, heard an explosion, grabbed his camera and left to see what happened.

"I went back to sleep, because I thought it was a gas explosion," Curtis says. "But when the second building was hit, I woke up and could see the fire. And I ran down to look for my roommate."

Curtis couldn't find him but witnessed the horror in every direction. As the first building crumbled, he raced down a flight of subway stairs. A cloud of debris poured into the subway entrance, so Curtis and others wrapped shirts around their heads so they could breathe.

"We couldn't see anything, so we ran down the stairs into another room," he says. That is where Curtis found an elderly woman. Her face was bleeding from a deep gash. Curtis quickly put his first aid training as an Eagle Scout to use. Working with another man with emergency medical training, Curtis assisted the woman, tearing off part of his shirt to make a bandage. But they could tell she was in shock and needed immediate help.

"There was glass on the side of her head, and we couldn't really touch it," he says. "So we got her back up to the top to a fire marshal."

Curtis temporarily took shelter in a bank that had been abandoned, and then ran down the street. "There was a bus, and I heard the word "uptown,' so I jumped on, covered with soot," he says. "I needed to get off, though, to find my friends at Union Square in Midtown, and they weren't letting anyone off."

Curtis was about to miss his stop and head for Queens. But what he heard next stunned him: "Somebody on the bus goes, "Hey, it's the Dell kid.' And the bus driver says, "Hey, it is,' and he let me off."

* * *

Curtis' finances, meanwhile, have improved as much as his visibility. He was paid per commercial for starters, but after he became such a hit, he was signed by Dell to a contract that includes commercials and public appearances.

Curtis won't reveal how much he is paid, though he says the money has really helped with life in New York City. He has been able to pay off his student loans, afford his Manhattan digs, take his friends out to dinner and save a little, too.

He worries about being typecast and relishes auditioning for new roles. "A lot of people think I'm Steven, so it's great to meet people, because immediately they know, "Oh, this guy can act.' "

At NYU, he says, he doesn't talk about his commercials with classmates. "Tisch is a pretty amazing program," he says. "It's very theater-oriented, so being on TV isn't like a huge thing there. There's a lot of rivalry. But I'm able to keep my friends."

And perspective.

"This has made me more humble in a way," he says. "I'm more aware of not letting it go to my head. Sometimes, it would be nice to just be a theater major. But this is an awesome opportunity. I work as hard as I can. If it works, great. And if they're done using me, they'll stop, and we'll move on."

For now, though, this dude is moving on up.

Ben Curtis has a big fan following on the Internet, especially for someone tied to an advertising campaign.

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